Tag Archives: poverty

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 9, 2012


 Childhood adversity is linked to chronic stress in adolescence, setting the stage for a host of physical and mental health problems, finds a new Cornell study published online in July in Psychological Science.

The longitudinal study found that the greater proportion of childhood spent in poverty, the greater number of risks children were exposed to, and this was linked to increased markers of chronic stress by the time the children were 17.

For their analysis, the researchers used survey data on 173 children that included information about family income and exposure to such risks as housing conditions, family turmoil and violence. Children's blood pressure, overnight levels of stress hormones and body mass index were measured to assess physiological changes, known as allostatic load, which are associated with chronic stress.

"While prior work has shown that childhood poverty is linked to elevated chronic stress, as indicated by allostatic load, this study adds two critical ingredients: We demonstrate this in a prospective, longitudinal design which makes the evidence stronger, and we show that the poverty-allostatic load link is explained in part by low-income children's exposure to cumulative risk factors," said lead author Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He conducted the study with Pilyoung Kim, Ph.D. '09, now an assistant professor at the University of Denver.

"In other words, one reason why poverty leads to chronic stress is because of the confluence of risk factors poor children encounter," Evans said.

The cumulative effect of these risks can add up to levels of stress capable of damaging the developing brain and body and setting a trajectory for future disorders, the authors said.

"Poverty often leads to chaotic circumstances that make it more difficult for children to get what they need to develop optimally," Evans said. "Chaos makes it difficult to sustain predictable and increasingly complex exchanges between caregivers and the growing child. Furthermore, this chaos occurs across many of the settings in which the children's lives are embedded, such as neighborhoods and schools.

"Based on what we're learning about the harmful and long-term effects of chronic stress on child development, we need to broaden our thinking about how we can improve the life prospects of children at risk and we need to make these investments early in life before the adverse effects of stress are encoded in the developing child," he said.

This research was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 25, 2012
Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong



 Adolescents who grow up in poverty are more likely to report being treated unfairly, and this perception of discrimination is related to harmful changes in physical health, reports a new Cornell study published in the July issue of Psychological Science.

One of the first studies to explore the role of discrimination as a factor in the well-known link between poverty and poor health, the research suggests that the stresses associated with experiencing social class discrimination have a sizable negative impact.

For their analysis, the researchers used data from 272 adolescents participating in a longitudinal study on rural poverty that included questions about their perceptions of differential treatment and measured blood pressure, overnight levels of stress hormones and body mass index -- all markers of wear and tear known as allostatic load resulting from chronic overactivation of the stress response system.

As expected, poverty was associated with higher levels of allostatic load, indicated by increased body mass index, blood pressure and levels of stress hormones. The researchers found that perceived discrimination accounted for 13 percent of these negative effects of poverty on allostatic load.

"Perhaps the most interesting thing about these findings is that discrimination may have serious, long-term adverse health effects among adolescents," said author Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He conducted the study with lead author Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, now a Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development, also in the College of Human Ecology.

"I think most of us would intuit that discrimination or prejudice is harmful and would make people feel bad, influence self-esteem, etc.," said Evans. "The fact that discrimination may also be capable of elevating chronic physiological stress in relatively healthy, young adults is potentially a very important finding. Elevated allostatic load has been linked to a litany of very serious health outcomes, including elevated chronic diseases and premature mortality."

While a growing body of research confirms disparities in health across socio-economic groups, the underlying reasons for this are still not well understood. By suggesting that social class discrimination, through its effects on the stress-response system, may be an important factor in health disparities, the new findings fill a gap in the research and may point to new approaches to improving health.

"It is surprising that social class discrimination is so ignored within the public discourse and the research literature," Fuller-Rowell said. "There is considerable attention paid to how racial stereotypes play out in daily life and influence how we think about and treat people, but these types of discussions are almost nonexistent in relation to social class stereotypes."

This needs to change, he said, so that people can begin to understand the potential negative effects of their stereotypes about wealth and social class.

This research was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.



By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 31, 2011

Chronic stress in childhood can hurt children and teens physically, mentally and emotionally. However, having a sensitive, responsive mother can reduce at least one of these harmful effects, reports a new Cornell study. It shows that such moms can help buffer the effects of chronic stress on teens' working memories.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology (23), sheds light on why some children are surprisingly resilient and seemingly unharmed despite growing up in difficult, high-stress situations. It was authored by Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Earlier research by Evans showed that the chronic high stress of children living in poverty was linked to working memory deficits in young adults. Working memory -- the ability to temporarily hold information in mind -- is critical for tasks like learning and problem-solving, he said.

The new study used longitudinal data on children and families in rural upstate New York when the children were about 9, 13 and 17 years old. More than half of the families were low-income. Wave 1 included 1,342 children, wave 2 involved 195 and wave 3 involved 214. Allostatic load -- a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues -- was assessed in the 9- and 13-year-olds. Maternal responsiveness was measured when the children were 13 years of age, by rating during games such maternal behaviors as cooperation, helping and adaptability to their child's mood and abilities, and by their children's perception of how much their mothers helped with homework, were willingness to talk when needed, spent time doing enjoyable things with the child or knowing where the child was after school. Children's working memory was assessed when they were 17.

The study confirmed that low-income children with higher levels of allostatic load tended to have worse working memory -- but only when maternal responsiveness was medium to low.

"Although high chronic stress in childhood appears to be problematic for working memory among young adults, if during the childhood period you had a more responsive, sensitive parent, you have some protection," Evans said.

Next, the researchers plan to determine whether allostatic load has direct effects on brain areas associated with working memory and to explore whether maternal responsiveness buffers some of the effects of chronic stress via better self-regulation/coping strategies in their children or by influencing levels of stress hormone, for example.

Evans noted that the study underscores the potential for interventions to break the poverty-stress-working memory link, which may be one pathway by which children growing up in poverty fall behind in school. The authors also emphasize, however, that parenting is not sufficient or even the best way to overcome the adverse consequences of childhood poverty. The impacts of poverty, they said, far outweigh the protective effects of maternal responsiveness. Ultimately poverty must be dealt with by more equitable and generous sharing of resources throughout society.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Gary Evans

reprinted with permission from Cornell Chronicle, Feb 2, 2011 
Gary Evans


Growing up poor increases a person's chances of health problems as an adult, but a new Cornell study shows that being raised in a tight-knit community can help offset this disadvantage of poverty.

Poor adolescents who live in communities with more social cohesiveness are less likely to smoke and be obese, reports the study, published in January's Psychological Science journal.

Environmental psychologist Gary W. Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, recruited 326 rural upstate New York children when they were about 9 years old and their mothers. About half of the children lived in or near poverty; the rest were from middle-income families. Periodically, Evans and co-author Rachel Kutcher '08 visited the participants to measure their health and exposure to various risk factors.

When the participants were about 17 years old, they and their mothers filled out surveys that assessed how connected their communities were and how much social control they felt they had. For example, mothers were asked to say how much they agreed that "one of my neighbors would do something if they saw someone trying to sell drugs to a child or youth in plain sight"; the teenagers were asked whether they had adults whom they could ask for advice. The teens also completed surveys on behavior, including smoking, and had their height and weight measured.

"Youth from low-income backgrounds smoked more than those who grew up in more affluent homes," the study concludes. However, if they lived in connected communities, "the effects of early childhood poverty on adolescent smoking were minimal."

Evans found similar results when assessing the teens' body-mass index, a standard measure of obesity.

"You may be able to loosen those connections between early childhood poverty and negative health outcomes if you live in a community with good social resources," Evans said (see sidebar for more on childhood poverty and obesity).

Evans and Kutcher believe adolescents in communities with more so-called social capital may have better role models or mentors; or perhaps in a more empowered community, where people feel comfortable stopping someone else's bad behavior, the young people feel less helpless as individuals. They might believe that "you have some control over what's going to happen to you," they suggested.

Still, the authors warned, social capital can help poor youths, but it is not a remedy for the health problems associated with impoverished living in childhood. Poor adolescents, even those in communities with more social capital, are still less healthy than their middle-income peers.

"It's not correct to conclude that, if you just improve social capital, then it would be okay to be poor," Evans says.

The work was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomics Status and Health.

Poorer children are heavier -- in part because of their environments

Nancy Wells


Poor diet and lack of exercise aren't the only risk factors for childhood obesity, report Cornell researchers. So too are low-income environments, which are fraught with more family turmoil, violence, noise, crowding and lower housing quality.

The researchers found that poor children gained weight more rapidly during childhood into early adulthood than children from middle-income families. In further examining the link between childhood poverty and body mass index, they found that it was risk exposure that accounted for the increased weight gain by the youth in poverty.

Researchers have long been aware of a link between poverty and obesity -- the poor suffer from higher levels of obesity and early childhood poverty is more strongly linked to adult obesity than current income.

But, "Our research shows that exposure to multiple risks, which are common in low-income environments, plays a critical role in setting children on a life course trajectory for obesity," said Nancy Wells, professor of design and environmental analysis and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health (100:12).

The researchers -- who also included Anna Beavis '07 and assistant professor Anthony Ong -- analyzed the relationships between obesity, childhood poverty and cumulative risk exposure in 326 children in rural upstate New York; the youngsters and their mothers were interviewed when the youths were 9, 13 and 17 years old. About half the group lived at or below the federal poverty line at initial recruitment. Poverty level, height and weight, and exposure to risk were measured.

"Poorer children become overweight adults, at least in part, because they face a greater array of risk factors over the course of their childhood," says co-author Professor Gary Evans. "The next step is to look more closely at how and why multiple risk exposure leads to obesity and when we better understand this, what can we do about it."

-- Karene Booker, extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development

By Karene Booker

Gary Evans


Children in low-income families lag behind their higher-income counterparts on virtually all measures of achievement, and this gap tends to increase over time. There are many reasons why, but a Cornell environmental psychologist and his colleagues add a new culprit to the list: chronic stress from adverse neighborhood and family conditions.

Chronic stress, in addition to parents not investing much time in cognitively stimulating their children, "can hinder children's cognitive functioning and undermine development of the skills necessary to perform well in school," says Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development, who has been studying the effects of poverty on children for more than two decades.

"Their homes, schools and neighborhoods are much more chaotic than those of their higher-income counterparts," he added. "They live with such stressors as pollution, noise, crowding, poor housing, inadequate school buildings, schools and neighborhoods with high turn-over, family conflict, family separation, and exposure to violence and crime. These conditions can produce toxic stress capable of damaging areas of the brain associated with attention, memory and language that form the foundation for academic success."

Writing in the winter issue of the magazine Pathways, a magazine on poverty, inequality and social policy published by the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, Evans and Columbia University's Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Princeton's Pamela Kato Kebanov describe their Risk-Stress Model. They point to research that shows how growing up in poverty is linked with dramatically increased risk factors and how this elevated risk is linked to higher stress levels among poor children.

They also describe their reanalysis of a national dataset of very young at-risk children to explore the relationship between family income and blood pressure and body mass index. Both are measures of stress, reflecting wear and tear on the body and are precursors of lifelong health problems.

The researchers found that babies growing up in low-income neighborhoods had health trajectories indicative of elevated chronic stress. Disturbingly, these patterns emerged very early in the lives of these children.

The authors also examined the link between chronic stress and achievement. There is some evidence that several areas of the brain -- language, long-term memory, working memory and executive control -- are sensitive to childhood poverty. New data are beginning to shed light on the question of whether these differences are attributable to cumulative risk and stress, Evans said.

In a recent follow-up in a longitudinal study of children in poverty, Evans and colleagues found that working memory at age 17 deteriorated in direct relation to the number of years the children lived in poverty. Importantly, this effect only occurred among the low-income children with chronically elevated physiological stress. Early childhood poverty did not lead to working memory deficits among children who had somehow escaped the stress that usually accompanies poverty.

Childhood poverty leads to lower academic and occupational achievement, in part, because the multiple risks typically faced by children growing up in poverty lead to chronic stress, which in turn, negatively affects children's cognitive abilities to succeed in school.

"We don't dispute the important roles of cognitive stimulation and parenting styles in socio-economic status differences in children's cognitive development," Evans says. "However if this new pathway is confirmed, it suggests new ways of understanding and ultimately intervening to break the income-achievement gap."

By Karene Booker

students in classroomWhen assessing education, much attention goes to the administrative control of the school district, teaching and testing. But little goes to the growing evidence that where learning occurs matters. American school buildings are aging and in disrepair, with the worst conditions found in those that serve low-income children.

Low building quality negatively affects student achievement, and this effect is exacerbated when students change schools often; both conditions are more often found in low-income districts, according to a new study by Cornell researchers Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis; Min Jun Yoo, M.S. '08; and John Sipple, associate professor of education; and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Vol. 30).

The researchers studied the relation between school building quality and student stability, socio-economic background and scores on standardized achievement tests in 511 public elementary schools in the New York City school system. Prior studies had confirmed a link between building quality and student performance independent of socio-economic status, but most did not address the question of why. One study provided a clue. It indicated that one reason for this relationship was because of absenteeism. Independent of socio-economic status, students in poorer quality buildings were absent more often. Students do not learn as much if they spend less time in school.

Thus, Evans and his colleagues investigated how student mobility might also contribute to the linkage between school building quality and student achievement.

"We found that students attending schools with lower building quality and those attending schools with high student mobility had lower test scores," says environmental psychologist Evans.

Furthermore, they found that when these two risk factors were combined, it was particularly damaging to academic achievement. These negative effects on test scores occurred independently of socio-economic and racial composition of the school. Further research at the individual student and teacher levels may shed light on the mechanisms for these synergistic effects.

While it is widely understood that teacher experience, curriculum and school social climate influence children's learning, this study underscores the importance of the physical environment as well. It is the first study to demonstrate the interaction between the condition of school facilities and student mobility.

"Our findings highlight a serious issue in American education -- inequality," says Evans. "Although we controlled for socio-economic status and race in our analysis, in reality low-income children are both more likely to change schools and more likely to attend schools with lower quality buildings. We conclude that the school environment contributes to the income-achievement gap and, therefore, warrants greater attention."

The study was supported in part by the New York City Department of Education, the William T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network for Socioeconomic Status and Health.


Evans, G.W., Yoo, M.J. & Sipple, J. (2010). The ecological context of student achievement: School building quality effects are exacerbated by high levels of student mobility.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 239-244.

Gary Evans, developmental and environmental psychologist at Cornell University, is PI on a Grand Opportunity award from the National Institutes of Health called "Childhood Poverty and Brain Development: The Role of Chronic Stress and Parenting." Evans is the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development. One fifth of America's children grow up in poverty.  While there is good evidence that this is harmful to health, achievement, and socio-emotional adjustment, very little is known about the brain basis that mediates the detrimental effects of poverty.

The two-year research plan will utilize a well-characterized longitudinal sample of low- and middle-income individuals in combination with a comprehensive set of conceptually derived, innovative and validated neuroimaging tests to address two critical questions: How childhood poverty influences adult brain structure and function; and what underlying mechanisms might account for childhood poverty - brain relationships.  The invesitgators hypothesize that chronic physiological stress dysregulation as well as harsh, unresponsive parenting during childhood will account for some of the expected linkages between childhood poverty - adult brain structure and function - particularly in the hippocampus, amygdala, and the anterior cingulate/medial prefrontal cortex.

The project will utilize a 14 year, ongoing longitudinal research program of low and middle-income individuals focused on childhood poverty, physiological stress, and socio-emotional development conducted by Evans. Half of this sample (now age 22) grew up below the poverty line and half are middle income.  The sample is well characterized over their life course in terms of socioeconomic status and other demographic variables, as well as both physical and psychosocial risk exposures.  Primary outcome variables for this longitudinal cohort include multiple methodological indicators of physiological stress (neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and metabolic) along with parental, self, and teacher ratings of socioemotional development (internalization, externalization, self regulation. In depth data on parenting are also included.

The neuroimaging work will be conducted in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan by Israel Liberzon, with expertise in the neuroimaging of stress in health and mental illness, and by James Swain a child psychiatrist studying the brain basis of parenting.

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By Sheri Hall
Reprinted with permission from ChronicleOnline, April 9, 2009

Chronic stress from growing up in poverty can physiologically impact children's brains, impairing their working memory and diminishing their ability to develop language, reading and problem-solving skills, reports a new Cornell study.

The study, published online March 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of the first to look at cognitive responses to physiological stress in children who live in poverty.

"There is a lot of evidence that low-income families are under tremendous amounts of stress, and we know already that stress has many implications," said lead author Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "What these data raise is the possibility that stress is also related to cognitive development."

Evans and Michele A. Schamber '08, who worked with Evans as an undergraduate, have been gathering detailed data about 195 children from rural households above and below the poverty line for 14 years. They quantified the level of physiological stress each child experienced at ages 9 and 13 using a "stress score" called allostatic load, which combines measures of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as blood pressure and body mass index.

At age 17, the subjects also underwent tests to measure their working memory, which is the ability to remember information in the short term. Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

Evans found that children who lived in impoverished environments for longer periods of time showed higher stress scores and suffered greater impairments in working memory as young adults. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor.

"When you are poor, when it rains it pours," Evans explained. "You may have housing problems. You may have more conflict in the family. There's a lot more pressure in paying the bills. You'll probably end up moving more often. We know that produces stress in families, including on the children.

"We put these things together and can say one reason we get this link between poverty and deficits in working memory may be from this chronic elevated stress," he said.

The findings suggest that government policies and programs that aim to reduce the income-performance gap should consider the stress children experience at home.

"It's not enough to just take our kids to the library," Evans said. "We need to also take into account that chronic stress takes a toll on their cognitive functioning."

Karene Booker

We know Poverty Matters for Children’s development, but why? One of the reasons poverty is bad for children is because it reduces maternal responsiveness. But why are low-income mothers less responsive to their children’s needs than their more affluent counterparts?

Many studies on poverty and parenting in North America have revealed an association between household income and maternal responsiveness. The evidence indicates that low-income mothers tend to be less responsive to their children’s physical and emotional needs which partially explains why poverty is harmful for children’s development.

“What we did not know is why poverty leads to unresponsive parenting in the first place,” said Gary Evans, Cornell Professor in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and Human Development and lead author of a paper in the current issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Development. “Our study provides evidence that low-income mothers are less responsive to their children compared with middle-income mothers because of two key aspects of the ecological context of poverty. First, low-income mothers face a daunting array of psychosocial and physical stressors that diminishes their capacity to be a responsive parent. Second, mothers living in poverty may also be less attuned to the needs of their children because they themselves lack adequate social networks.”

The paper is important not only because it sheds light on the question of why poverty is harmful to children, but also because the authors examine this question in an understudied population - rural white parents of young adolescents living in North America. Nearly all of the data examining poverty and parenting comes from urban, ethnic minority families.

There are numerous studies that document that adults living in poverty experience more negative life events and income-related stressors than lower and middle class adults. There is also evidence that low-income households have smaller social networks to help them cope with stressors. A smaller body of literature demonstrates the potential for parental stress or social isolation to reduce parental responsiveness. What has been missing, however, is a direct test of why poverty leads to unresponsive parenting.

Two hundred and twenty-three mothers and their seventh to eighth grade children were evaluated in their homes. Maternal stress was measured with the Perceived Stress Scale. This 10-item scale assesses how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overwhelming persons find their lives. Maternal social networks were gauged with the Social Network Index. This instrument evaluates participation in 12 types of social relationships, including spouse/partner, parents, parents-in-law, children, other close family members, close neighbors, friends, workmates, schoolmates, fellow volunteers, and religious and non-religious affiliations. Maternal responsiveness was measured by youth perceptions of maternal responsiveness. A rating scale consisting of eleven items tapping both instrumental (e.g., help with homework) and emotional responsiveness (e.g., willing to talk to me when needed) was developed for this project.

The data showed that poverty erodes maternal responsiveness because low-income mothers experience increased psychological stress and have smaller social networks. Diminished social resources may be especially challenging for low-income, rural mothers because of longer distances from town, family and friends coupled with lack of mass transit and high fuel and car maintenance costs.

The findings address questions about the mediational pathways between poverty and maternal responsiveness, providing a template for further research as well as valuable insights for policy makers designing programs to improve parenting among low-income families.

For Further Information

Evans, G.W., Boxill, L., & Pinkava, M. (2008). Poverty and maternal responsiveness: The role of maternal stress and social resources. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 32, 232-237.

Boxill and Pinkava are former Cornell undergraduate students majoring in Biology and Society and Human Development respectively.

This article is based on a presentation at the first Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference at Cornell, October 2007.

Daniel T. Lichter, Department of Policy Analysis and Management and Department of Sociology, Cornell University

Elaine Wethington, Department of Human Development and Department of Sociology, Cornell University

The first Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference, Chaos and Children’s Development: Levels of Analysis and Mechanisms, was held on the campus of Cornell University in October 2007 in honor of the late Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus, who is internationally known for his contributions to the ecology of human development. The focus of this interdisciplinary conference was on how chaotic environmental settings, characterized by high levels of noise, crowding, instability, and a lack of structure and predictability, influence human development from infancy through adolescence. Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model views child development as occurring within the context of the complex system of relationships in his or her environment. The main tenet of his theory is that development is powerfully shaped by the interactions between the child’s own biology, immediate family, community environment, and the larger society. Four nested levels or systems influence each other and the development of children: Microsystem: Immediate environments such as family, school, peer group, neighborhood, and childcare; Mesosystem: A system comprised of connections between immediate environments such as a child’s home and school; Exosystem: External environmental settings which only indirectly affect development such as parent's workplace; and Macrosystem: The larger cultural context, national economy, political culture. According to this model, human development takes place through proximal processes – increasingly complex reciprocal interactions between the individual and the people, objects, and symbols in his or her immediate environment. Proximal processes are seen as the primary engines of development. Developmental outcomes are the result of the interaction of proximal processes and characteristics of the individual. Context can shape the occurrence of these processes as well as moderate their impacts. The length, frequency and regularity of exposure to proximal processes are also important to consider.

Using Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model as a theoretical framework, Lichter’s presentation at the Bronfenbrenner conference, co-authored with Elaine Wethington, reviewed historical and sociological research on social change, family changes, and child development in reference to the emerging concept of “chaos.” They addressed the specific question of whether chaos has increased in the lives of children over the last century.

The authors challenge the conventional view that chaos is growing in the lives of American children. They argue that chaos in the early 21st century is manifested in much different ways from the past. The risks to children from environmental hazards, poverty, poor health and early death were much worse in the past. Chaos at the macrosystem level has been increasingly replaced over the past century by chaos at the microsystem level (i.e., in children’s family environments). The authors also contend that it is difficult to assess whether the typical child today is worse off than in the past because the “typical” or average child no longer exists in our increasingly diverse society. Averages mask growing inequality and differences in childhood experiences.

As more American children are placed “at risk” because of family disruption, school dropout, drug abuse, delinquency, and teen pregnancy, we may nostalgically cling to the belief that chaos in the lives children is something new. “Chaos” is defined here as chronic or persisting instability in family life, neighborhood, and community and institutional connections. The past is often viewed in overly sentimental ways—strong family and kinship ties, stable neighborhoods knitted together by shared ethnicity, religion, language, and supportive community support networks.

Historical evidence suggests that we should question sentimental views of the past. The truth is that children in the past often faced harsh conditions known to be related to “chaos”. These conditions affected their healthy development and transitions to productive adult roles. One hundred years ago many more children suffered from financial and social instability. Infants and young children were also more likely to be threatened by ill health and even death. Life was hard and children suffered in ways different from today.

Children in Historical Perspective

The early twentieth century was a period of great economic uncertainty and social unrest. Rapid growth and urbanization were accompanied by social and economic disruptions including two World Wars, the 1918 flu epidemic, massive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, the “Great Migration” of blacks out of the rural South, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl migration and other white migration from Appalachia to urban areas. Poverty levels were extremely high and have subsequently declined significantly. Given the context of rapid urbanization, economic dislocations and high rates of poverty and unemployment, geographical mobility rates were little different from the mobility rates of today. Maternal, infant, and child mortality rates were very high and child labor was prevalent. Children’s lives in the early 20th century were difficult by almost any measure.

Childhood in Recent Historical Perspective

In the past, instability in children’s lives reflected large-scale social and economic upheavals. Home was presumably a safe haven for children in a harsh and chaotic world. Today, the world may be a safer place for children in terms of health and government supports, but these benefits may be offset by increasing instability rooted in rapid changes in family life.

Demographic evidence suggests overall declines rather than increases in the conditions related to chaos along the dimensions of crowding, noise, and stressful neighborhood conditions such as crime. Household size has decreased, home ownership rates have increased, and the population has shifted to the suburbs and exurbs which are cleaner, quieter and safer.

While poverty rates among U.S. children have been relatively stable over the past three decades, poverty as an indirect indicator of chaotic conditions for children may misrepresent trends in more proximate family conditions that are ultimately more threatening to stability in children’s lives. Presumably, living with single parents is associated with more chaos in the home. In the early 20th century, about 85 percent of America’s children lived with both parents. Between 1970 and 1980, this percentage dipped to 70 percent, where it has remained. Today, over 20 percent of children reside with a single mother, which places them at risk of high poverty and chaotic home conditions. However, overall prevalence measures of children’s changing living arrangements mask the complexity of recent family changes.

For example, divorce rates accelerated after 1970 and then leveled off at high level after 1990. Today, more than 1 million children per year experience the divorce of their parents. Divorce and remarriage of children’s parents have been associated with higher levels of sexual activity for daughters in adolescence, poor relationship choices, and depressive symptoms during young adulthood.

High rates of cohabitation and remarriage may also contribute to increasing instability of children’s lives. An increasing share of children have the benefit of two caretakers and providers in the home, but are also exposed to new complexities unique to stepfamilies as well as the potential for increased conflict, economic instability, mobility, severed emotional ties to adults, and the reorganization of family processes and rituals. Chaos is also reflected in the increasing share of children born to unmarried and cohabitating mothers. Nearly 40 percent of children today are born out-of-wedlock.

Rapid changes in American family life since the 1960s have many causes, including the dramatic rise in maternal employment and women’s growing economic independence. These changes may have introduced an additional element of chaos and complexity into children’s lives. Whether increasing maternal labor force participation represents a source of added risk or has a net negative effect on children’s healthy development, is a matter of debate.

The existing literature suggests that the effects of maternal employment depend on many factors such as work schedule, type of work, wage rates, and availability of high quality childcare. On one hand, maternal work can be an additional family stressor that places young children at risk. On the other hand, for some families, maternal employment provides more regularity in children’s lives, a working parent role model, additional income, and connection to positive social and organizational networks in the larger community.

The longstanding concern that maternal work takes time away from children is also being revisited. Some researchers suggest that parents in the aggregate spend more time today with their children than they did in the past, despite working more hours. Employed mothers are mostly sacrificing leisure activities to maximize their time with their children and fathers are more likely than in the past to contribute to homework and childcare. Noncustodial fathers are also more involved with their children today than in the past. These are positive developments.

Divergent Destinies for Chidren in the United States

Arguments about growing chaos in the lives of children, especially chaos created by family changes, must be viewed in the context of growing economic, family, and cultural diversity. Overall rates of poverty, single parenthood, divorce, and other risk factors potentially mask growing social and economic disparities. Poverty rates based on absolute income have remained relatively stable over the past 25 years, but the poor have fallen further behind the middle-class and affluent U.S. population subgroups.

Parental work and marriage go hand-in-hand in shaping the economic trajectories of America’s children. Over the period from 1960-2000, low- and high-educated mothers diverged significantly on median age at childbearing, single motherhood, and employment rates. Women at the top of the education distribution were far more likely than other women to delay childbearing, avoid out-of-wedlock childbearing, and work outside the home. Other studies show that college-educated women are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than other women. Children living in families supported by single mothers, especially nonworking mothers, show a marked disadvantage. Almost 75 percent of these children were poor in 2006.

While there are potentially positive developments – reduced teen births, increased share of births to college educated mothers, and reduced share of children born to high school dropouts – some segment of American children may be may be falling behind on the road to adult success.

Those that fall behind may be increasingly differentiated by race and ethnicity. Current estimates indicate that one of every five children in America is the child of immigrants. Poverty rates for these children are much greater than the national average. New immigrant families are poorer and less skilled than in the past and often live in impoverished and highly congested urban ethnic enclaves.

A fundamental reason for differentiation between children at the top of the economic distribution and those at the bottom is that the children at the top have parents who are “winners” in the job market. The winners can afford to purchase stability—less chaos—for their children on a number of important dimensions. They are more likely to be married and they have a lower risk for divorce. Their children are more likely to live in stable, low-crime neighborhoods, go to good schools, connect to effective social institutions, and live in relatively stable residential communities that provide good public and private support services. The experiences of poor, unmarried, minority or immigrant mothers and their children are much different and, arguably, are diverging from the experiences of the “typical” native born, white, middle-class child in America.


Chaotic conditions in children’s lives in the early 21st century are manifested in much different ways from the past. Children today are exposed to greater family instability, but fewer risks along other dimensions such as poverty and ill health. Ultimately, questions about whether chaos has increased or decreased over the last century may be less important than questions about whether it has increased or not for different groups in our increasingly multiracial, multicultural society. American children may be on increasingly divergent trajectories, with varying exposure to different forms of “chaos” widening the gap between the life chances of the poorest and richest children.

Further Resources

Chaos and Children's Development: Distance learning panel seminar. June, 17, 2008, 114 MVR Hall, Cornell University or CCE video downlink locations.

Poverty and Chaos: article

Human Development Today e-News

Human Development Outreach & Extension